Why is there a city in Virginia called Newport News?
A newspaper, we could understand. But this is no proper name for a city. (Nor do we think it's proper that Virginia insists on calling itself a "commonwealth" rather than a "state." What is this, the British Empire?)
We are told by Tim Morgan, professor of history at Christopher Newport College in Newport News, that in Colonial days the word "news" sometimes meant a place where information was dispensed. Newport News was the port where the admiral Christopher Newport first called on his voyages from England. He learned about the Indian situation, and the locals learned about events in Europe.
One rather wacky alternative theory, Morgan says, is that some Irish settlers in Virginia named the city after a place called Port Nuce in Ireland. You know: New Port Nuce. In other words the town may have gotten its name through a sort of knock-knock joke.
Tragically, there is no newspaper in Newport News that calls itself the Newport News News. Instead we Americans have to content ourselves with such great paper names as the Tiller & Toiler of Larned, Kan., the Watsonville, Calif., Register-Pajaronian, and the Council Bluffs, Iowa, Daily Nonpareil.
Why is aluminum foil shiny on one side and dull on the other? This has an astonishingly dull (har!) answer, but one with the seed of a profound truth.
We spent days debating the significance of the shine. Surely, some argued, you had to wrap a baked potato with the shiny side facing in, to reflect heat and gamma rays and whatnot back into the potato. But others swore that they always wrapped stuff with the shiny side out, for maximum decorative effect.
Eventually we were forced to do actual research. Jim Rowland, a metallurgical engineer at Reynolds Metal in Richmond, gave us the mind-shattering answer: "It's not something that's functional. It's the result of processing."
Indeed, the shininess has no purpose. It's completely unintentional. See, they have these bright shiny steel rolling pins. They feed the aluminum along the pins to flatten it out. Because foil must be really thin, and it's hard to set the pins close enough, the manufacturers cheat a little by simultaneously feeding in two sheets of foil, twinned together, one on top of the other. The two outer sides that touch the shiny steel pins become shiny and polished-looking. The inner sides stay dull.
The profound truth: Sometimes things do not contain a profound truth.
Why don't people die after they stop producing offspring, the way beans and tomatoes do? We don't sit around for hours trying to think up offensive questions; they come to us naturally. Why the heck do the elderly exist?
Consider the rest of nature. Pacific salmon swim thousands of miles upstream, spawn, then die. Bamboo grows for 100 years, flowers, and dies. Mayflies live a few hours, mate, and die. Bean plants give themselves a death hormone after they go to seed. When a queen bee stops cranking out babies she's murdered by the workers. Look around nature and the coldhearted message is ubiquitous: Make babies and then get outta here.
Fortunately we are social mammals, and we get to break the rules. Post-menopausal pilot whales still breast-feed young whales. Among baboons, a male will sometimes try to attack his son, due to a perceived threat of sexual rivalry, but will be stopped by the grandmother. And among humans, the elderly are typically the leaders of society. So let's content ourselves with a simple, feel-good answer: The elderly exist because we are social creatures and need wise elders.
That leads us to a more complicated question:
Why do we die? Despite all kinds of medical advances, people still don't live much beyond 115. There's not much give at the margin. Why must we deteriorate and die?
The short answer is that no one knows. "There's a Nobel Prize to be had there," says Richard Sprott, associate director for the Basic Aging Program at the National Institute on Aging.
One theory we like for purely aesthetic reasons is that oxygen is toxic. We always suspected as much! Oxygen atoms have a tendency to run around as "free radicals," meaning they are highly reactive and tend to scuff up our cells and break things. So we just get banged up by random hits. The problem with this theory is that all species have such precise maximum life spans that it suggests we don't die randomly, but according to some kind of genetic schedule. It may be that we're programmed to die. No amount of clean living and good medicine has allowed anyone to live to a documented age above 120.
At the same time, we have to realize that people don't die of rust, of cellular death. A person of 90 makes red blood cells as well as a 9-year-old. What usually kills us is some larger systemic problem like cancer or heart disease. Are they also part of the genetic plan? Probably. More and more researchers are searching for, and in some cases finding, genetic "errors" that predispose people to cancer. Last week, for example, it was reported that new studies show that some breast cancers may have a genetic cause.
These bad genes aren't universal among living creatures. The Pacific rockfish doesn't get cancer or heart disease. Some of these fish live more than 100 years. They don't die until they get eaten or bonked on the head or whatever. Why don't rockfish cells sometimes start growing out of control and form tumors that spread to the rest of the body, as happens with humans? Because the rockfish is lucky: The cancer gene never got into its gene pool.
No such luck with us.
"During the evolution of mammals, they acquired sets of genes that cause high risk for blood vessel disease and cancer with aging," says Caleb Finch, a neurobiologist at the University of Southern California.
Why would evolution allow such a horrible thing to happen? More specifically: Why doesn't evolution weed out the killer genes?
The answer is rather shocking: Cancer, heart disease and other ailments that primarily affect older people have no significant effect on human reproduction, and therefore are sort of evolutionarily irrelevant. When the genes that cause diseases enter the human gene pool, it's as though evolution doesn't notice, because the victims have stopped having children and therefore natural selection can't do anything about the problem.
We don't want to end the column on that somber note, though, so instead we will mention that there are 4,000 snakes per square mile in Guam.